Consultant: With Enough Investment, Multi-Sport Complex Could Make Blono a Sports Tourism Competitor

 Local Leaders and community members at Heartland Community College to hear the results of a consultants study. (Photo: Breanna Grow)

Local Leaders and community members at Heartland Community College to hear the results of a consultants study. (Photo: Breanna Grow)

Clearwater, Florida-based consultant Sports Facilities Advisory says while Bloomington-Normal has the right stuff to support a multi-sport complex, the community would need to pony up ~$43M to make it a successful venture.

Members of the Bloomington City Council, Normal Town Council and Bloomington-Normal Convention and Visitors Bureau met at Heartland Community College Monday evening to hear the results of the consultant’s study, commissioned by the Town in February in part to explore alternatives to the widely used fields at Bloomington’s Central Illinois Regional Airport.

The fields, operated by the Prairie Community Soccer League and used by a number of public and private sports teams, face imminent closure under new Federal Aviation Administration rules.

Bloomington and Normal council members also recognized the additional dollars a sports complex could bring into the community, with families traveling for tournaments spending money on food, hotel rooms and entertainment in the area over the course of several days.

FSA Chief Operating Officer and Partner Evan Eleff told the crowd of officials and members of the public the community will have to invest in the size and quality of a potential facility to compete with other markets in the growing sports tourism industry.

“You can’t expect to put in a parking lot with some grass fields and just stripe them for a tournament,” he said.

Just what would the community need to accommodate both local and out-of-town players?

The study recommends an indoor-outdoor complex with a total of 16 synthetic and natural grass fields, with the indoor portion housed under a 130,000-square foot dome. Eleff said the study identified 16 sites throughout Bloomington-Normal large enough to accommodate the structure, but the estimated cost -- $43,585,074 -- isn’t site-specific.

With plenty of local hotels, restaurants and entertainment options to offer to the millions of potential visitors within a few hours’ drive, Eleff said Bloomington-Normal already has the supporting infrastructure needed to become a significant player in sports tourism.

FSA estimates the facility could generate around $3.1M in direct spending, hosting eight tournaments in its first year of operation -- with 15 tournaments in year five; the number climbs to $9.5M.

But that doesn’t mean the facility would become a profit center for investors -- factoring recurring capital improvement costs into the equation, Eleff said the projected economic impact likely wouldn’t cover the overall cost of the project.

“It’s a long-term investment into the property, and the goal is to offset some of those expenses; we don’t expect this facility ever to pay its own debt,” he said.

So why take on the project at all?

Eleff said without affordable or free facilities, low-income families could become priced out of playing sports, an activity with social, physical and economic benefits that continue into adulthood.

“Making sure that your kids are active means that you create a multigenerational and intergenerational cycle of community health,” he said, citing a study showing that active children are twice as likely to have active children of their own once they become parents. “That’s why this is important to us -- when we hear that a community is going to lose one of its major sports assets and that the replacement plan for that is unclear, we want to make sure something gets done.”

And while it may require sizable public and private investment, a proper multi-sport complex could generate significant revenue -- a definite advantage over public facilities that supply local governments with little to no income such as parks, Eleff said.

What’s Next: Normal Mayor Chris Koos said it’s still a question whether local officials want to continue exploring the multi-sport complex option.

“I think the first start is, based on the information we’ve been given, do we want to take the next step? Do we want to start digging into the numbers and look at what the debt service is going to be, whether the City of Bloomington is interested, and most importantly whether there are private entities that are interested,” he said.

Should the Town or the City decide to move forward with the recommendation, Koos said officials will solicit public input as part of the planning process.

“Transparency and the ability for people to ask their questions and understand what we’re doing is crucial.”